OK, technically, it was a one-minute Simpsons “short” on FOX’s The Tracey Ullman Show. But it was still a debut.
“Good Night” aired on April 19, 1987, and kicked off what would be a whopping 48 Simpsons shorts—many written by their creator Matt Groening. While the shorts were so popular that they spawned the first “official” Simpsons cartoon in 1989—the Christmas special Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire—their own more “edgy” adventures soon left the memory of the TV viewing public.
You can really see the “underground comix” influences on The Simpsons in these shorts, simply just in Groening’s designs for the characters. For a cartoon property that relies so much on being “on model” (and having known artists for the comic books, being “on model” is apparently a HUGE thing), seeing the Simpson family of the Ullman shorts is like viewing a “bootleg.” And yet it’s all sort of really neat as well, literally looking and feeling like a comic strip come to life.
And it’s no wonder, since Groening himself, before The Simpsons, created the popular Life In Hell comic strip, something I used to read as a child in copies of the local “alternative” newspaper and later in collected book editions. Watching the Ullman shorts is like viewing the “missing link” between these two formidable projects of Groening’s life.
The “proto-Simpsons” would later return in the 2014 “Treehouse of Horror” episode of the main series, as ghosts who haunt the “Simpsons Prime” family. Official DVD releases of the shorts are hard to come by, however.